Mouth-dropping corruption charges rock Indonesia

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The speaker of Indonesia's parliament, Setya Novanto, talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 18, 2017. Antara Foto/Agung Rajasa via Reuters

Nearly two years ago, beaming parliament speaker and Golkar Party chairman Setya Novanto stood alongside Donald Trump in New York as the then-presidential candidate proclaimed him to be “an amazing man … one of the most powerful men” in Indonesia. And finally: “A good man.”

This week, the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) named the 61-year-old four-term legislator as the mastermind behind the single most egregious corruption scandal to hit the graft-scarred House of Representatives since the dawn of the country’s democratic era. Navanto has denied any wrongdoing.

For all his checkered past, removing Novanto, 58, a valuable ally of President Joko Widodo, could inflame tensions within the country’s second biggest party, which is already split into four factions, not all of which support the president.

Just weeks ago, the KPK had warned a senior government minister that Novanto would not be getting off the hook this time, a reference to four previous graft cases dating back to 1999 in which prosecutors had failed to lay a glove on him.

They were true to their word. He now faces a 20-year prison term as the alleged central figure in a conspiracy to embezzle Rp2.3 trillion (US$173 million) from a grossly-inflated Rp5.9 trillion (US$443 million) electronic identity card (e-KTP) project eight years ago.

Novanto, at least 37 other parliamentarians, 12 Home Ministry officials and nine of the 10 political parties holding House seats are all said to have benefited from what one watchdog group called “a massive robbery of the national budget.”

The speaker of Indonesia's parliament Setya Novanto waves as he arrives at Corruption Eradication Commision building (KPK) in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 14, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Hafidz Mubarak via REUTERS

Indonesia’s parliamentary speaker Setya Novanto as he arrives at the Corruption Eradication Commission building (KPK) in Jakarta, July 14, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto/Hafidz Mubarak via Reuters

The revelations of high-level involvement came to light in the indictment of two senior bureaucrats who are currently on trial for facilitating the unprecedented rip-off, with investigators hinting that more prominent figures may yet be in the firing line.

Courted by presidential adviser Luhut Panjaitan, Novanto played a leading role in luring Golkar out of Prabowo Subianto’s opposition coalition and into Widodo’s struggling minority government in the aftermath of the 2014 elections.

Golkar leaders have made it clear the Novanto case will not change the party’s position in the ruling coalition or, apparently, in Novanto’s pronouncement last September that it will support Widodo in his bid for re-election in 2019.

Surveys showed that decision marginally increased Golkar’s electability, which has stagnated at the two past legislative elections when it secured only 14% of the vote – a far cry from its hey-day as former strongman Suharto’s political machine.

Novanto has refused to step down from his two posts, saying he will lodge a pre-trial motion to overthrow his suspect status – a tactic that has worked in two prominent graft cases in the bribe-prone lower courts.

The KPK is clearly confident it has a watertight case. Because it does not have a mechanism to halt an investigation once it has been opened, the commission has to be ultra-cautious in gathering evidence.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures in an interview at the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures in an interview at the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

If Novanto is forced from office, he is expected to be replaced by mild-mannered Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, 54, who party sources say has the support of Widodo and Akbar Tanjung, head of Golkar’s board of patrons.

Because Hartarto is not an elected official, however, he can not assume Novanto’s leadership position in parliament.

Also waiting in the wings is party chief executive Nurdin Halid, 58, a long-standing Novanto ally with a string of past graft cases behind him as well, including two where he was sentenced to jail time.

Golkar secretary-general Idrus Maham was also Novanto’s partner in a 2003 case in which the pair were alleged to have removed 60,000 tons of imported rice from a customs warehouse without paying Rp122.5 billion (US$9.2 million) in duties.

Embezzlement and kick-back allegations in the House of Representatives have rocked Indonesia's political establishment, presenting President Joko Widodo with a political dilemma ahead of general elections in 2019. Photo: Reuters

Embezzlement and kick-back allegations in Indonesia’s House of Representatives have rocked Indonesia’s political establishment. Photo: Reuters

Nothing came of that inquiry. Nor the investigation into Novanto’s alleged role in the Bank Bali scandal, which was called off in 2003 after failing to prove he was complicit in illegally moving Rp546 billion (US$41 million) from the bank to a private firm.

Why Novanto, deputy speaker Fadli Zon and their parliamentary delegation met with Trump in September 2015 has never really been made clear, apart from their explanation that it was “a form of diplomacy” rather than a declaration of political support.

Barely two months later, he was forced to resign from the speakership over a wiretap which appeared to show him conspiring with oil mafia kingpin Reza Chalid to shake down US mining giant Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold.

Typically, it proved to be only a minor setback. In May 2016, he was restored as Golkar chairman and by last January had won back the speakership from fellow Golkar politician Ade Komarudin, a move pushed by both Widodo and ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The leader of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) Megawati Sukarnoputri looks at a booth displaying memorabilia on the sidelines of the 4th PDIP congress at the Inna Grand Bali Beach hotel on the resort island of Bali April 10, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu ???ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.? - RTR4WS5T

Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

Rather than feel ashamed at this latest blow to its already tattered reputation, the so-called people’s representatives are striking back, launching a pansus, or official inquiry, into the KPK in a blatant attempt to weaken it.

Worse – and almost unbelievably– the inquiry is led by three-term Golkar politician Agun Gunandjar Sudarsa who, like many on the lawmakers on the panel, is himself implicated in the identity card scandal.

If that was not enough, the panel’s search for KPK infractions has even taken them to Bandung’s Sukamiskin Prison, where they interviewed several convicts over the circumstances that led to their prosecution.

Despite opposition from anti-graft activists and civil society at large, the seven parties behind the move are pushing for revisions to the 2002 KPK Law aimed at withdrawing the commission’s prosecutorial powers.

Golkar party leader Setya Novanto shakes hands with Chairman of the board of Golkar party Aburizal Bakrie in Jakarta, Indonesia, November 28, 2016 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken November 28, 2016. Antara Foto/Rosa Panggabean/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT.NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA - RTSTZX8

Golkar leader Setya Novanto shakes hands with his party’s chairman Aburizal Bakrie in Jakarta, November 28, 2016. Photo: Antara Foto/Rosa Panggabean via Reuters

That would render the KPK impotent and leave the anti-graft campaign largely in the less-squeaky hands of the police and Attorney-General’s Office (AGO) – the same agencies who were never able to nail Novanto.

It would be comforting to think the same parties will suffer the consequences at the polls in 2019, but because most Indonesian voters are non-taxpayers they don’t see parliamentary corruption for what it is: the wholesale theft of their money.

One first-term legislator, who counts himself among the 10% of the 560-seat House which he believes perform the functions for which they were elected, could only gape at the enormity of the latest scandal.

“It makes you wonder whether we will ever get rid of corruption,” he said last week. “It just seems to have become part of our culture.”

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